Florida Court Says Kids Sentenced to Life in Prison Should Be Resentenced

Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively, possibly affecting more than 200 cases.

In 1997, 15-year-old Rebecca Lee Falcon was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery for her involvement in the shooting death of taxi driver Richard Todd Phillips, 25, in a suburb of Panama City. Falcon committed the crime with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Clifton Gilchrist, who was also convicted and sentenced to life without parole. It's not conclusive who pulled the trigger (each said the other did it).

Gilchrist will likely never get out of prison because he was 18 at the time of the slaying. But Falcon could get a chance at redemption thanks to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 Supreme Court decision that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. That decision prevented future such sentences for children, but whether it should be applied retroactively is still a question many states are considering.

On Thursday, Florida became the latest state to apply the decision retroactively, and those juveniles who received sentences to die a natural death in prison will have a chance to be resentenced. 

"[O]ur conclusion finds support in the recent trend of courts across the country holding that Miller applies retroactively," the Florida Supreme Court said in its decision. Eight other states have already applied Miller v. Alabama retroactively: Nebraska, New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Iowa, Massachusetts, Texas, and Wyoming.

The Southern Poverty Law Center praised the ruling as an improvement to how Florida deals with juveniles in the justice system.

“The Florida Supreme Court has confirmed what experts and parents have long known: Children are fundamentally different from adults,” says Tania Galloni, managing attorney for SPLC. “Children, even those who have committed the most serious offenses, deserve the chance to show that they have been rehabilitated instead of being locked up for life.”

The Florida court pointed out Falcon's traumatic childhood leading up to the 1997 murder, which included sexual and emotional abuse from her stepfather. And before she set out to rob a taxi driver, Falcon allegedly said she expected to “get the money and go” like “in the movies.”

The American Civil Liberties Union found approximately 2,750 juveniles serving life without parole in the U.S. About 270 of them are in Florida.

Amnesty International says that although several other countries have life without parole for juveniles in theory, the United States is the only country that has imposed the sentence in recent years.

The Florida Supreme Court's decision can be read below:

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Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs